Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Nemesis


Writer - Paul B. Thompson
Cover art - Mark Zug
Released February 2000

SUMMARY
When the Weatherlight escaped Rath it left two crewmen behind: Crovax and Ertai. Ertai ended up on board skyship Predator, a prisoner of Greven il-Vec. It turns out that Crovax, already turned into a vampire, was brought to Phyrexia and further enhanced. He was then send to Phyrexia to be its new evincar, as Volrath had left to go star in Mercadian Masques. However, while a Phyrexian priest called Kirril worked on Crovax, an inner circle member called Abcal-Dro has the daughter of Eladamri, Avila, killed and used her body to create Belbe. Belbe is implanted with a device that allows Yawgmoth to see through her and is then also send to Rath as an emissary, to oversee the struggle for who becomes the new evincar. Abcal-Dro believes survival of the fittest is the best method of selecting a new ruler.




Honestly, it is never much of a contest. Crovax starts out knowing how to manipulate flowstone, and pretty quickly figures out how to control Greven's spinal implants. On top of that, Greven says he prefers to serve rather than to rule. Belbe suggest Ertai, whose tremendous native capability also gives him minor control over the flowstone, as another challenger for the title. He is tempted to take over Rath and rule in in a just way, but he is constantly a few steps behind Crovax. Even after he starts using the Rejuvenation Chamber to increase his strength.

The one big misstep Crovax makes happens after he recruits a number of sergeants of the Rathi army for his cause and launches an attack on the Skyshroud elves, in retaliation for Eladamri's attack on the Stronghold during Rath and Storm. Eladamri is ready for him though, and the army is defeated. Crovax then surprises everyone by teleporting back to the Stronghold. In his absence Ertai had suggested taking hostages of the il-Vec, il-Dal and il-Kor tribes, in order to keep them loyal. Crovax promptly impales them all on flowstone, Vlad Dracul style. It turns out that thanks to the Phyrexian alterations death itself strengthens him, even giving him new abilities like the teleportation. He has become the most evil character present, caring about nothing but the snuffing out of all other life to satisfy his own hunger..


There are still a few points of hope though. Ertai and Belbe fall in love with each other. He uses his magic to seemingly blind Yawgmoth's eye-implant, and she starts to rebel against Phyrexia, altering the flowstone production to keep Rath from reaching the critical mass it needs for the overlay with Dominaria. Also, the Oracle en-Vec declares that now Eladamri, rather than Gerrard, is the Korvecdal, though she also say that his destiny lies on another world. Eladamri and the granddaughter of the Vec leader, Lin Sivvi, lead a group of rebels into the Stronghold to destroy Predator. The fact that the airship was out of commission for a while after its battle with Weatherlight was the only thing that gave the rebel army a chance on the open fields.

It is not to be though. The rebels manage to do some damage and to free Takara (the real one), but one by one they are killed, until the last ones are hauled up in the Dream Halls. Crovax has captured Ertai at this point and is pressuring Belbe into declaring him Evincar, but then one last unlikely ray of hope appears: Volrath. Returned from his stay on Mercadia has challenges Crovax to regain his throne. Initially he seems to have a change, but as he starts to falter Ertai becomes convinced that Crovax's victory is inevitable. He magically hampers Volrath, giving Crovax the win, in the hope that this will put him in his former crewmate's good graces, and that he and Belbe can escape and live together far away from all the slaughter.

Unfortunately Belbe has gone to the Dream Halls to treat with Eladarmi and Sivvi. She uses her personal planar portal to help them and Takara escape, giving them a chance to fight Phyrexia from Dominaria, but Eladamri is still disgusted by the fact that this Phyrexian is wearing his daughter's face and chucks a vial of poison at her, killing her.


In the aftermath of all this, Crovax is the undisputed ruler of Rath. Volrath has his Phyrexian implants removed and is injected with flowstone, after which Ertai is forced to literally take him apart molecule by molecule utilizing the nano-machines in the flowstone. Ertai himself falls into the role of Crovax's minion, and has used the Rejuvenation Chamber so much that he got the same grey skin as Greven and two new arms growing from his sides. Belbe's body is burned and Ertai takes her skull, though he is terrified when he catches a glimpse of her implanted eye.

In the bowels of Rath the flowstone machinery automatically adjusted back to their regular production, and in the final chapter the overlay is already beginning. The stage is set for the Invasion.

REVIEW
There is a strange tonal dissonance in the Weatherlight Saga. The parts with the crew, though not without their dark or emotional scenes, are at their heart an adventure story, explicitly based on Star Wars and the like. The Urza bits, by contrast, are a tragedy about an insane godlike being who keeps on failing and endangering those around him, and who is only the hero of the story because his enemies are utterly horrendous body-horror aliens. At times this could be a bit jarring, but as the saga continued the continuity team started to bring the two story strands closer together in tone. Mostly by introducing more tragedy in the Crew-based parts of the story. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Nemesis.

Nemesis exists to set up the Phyrexians for their upcoming invasion, and to build up their threat a bit more. Because while they have certainly been shown to be terrifying and horrible, they, or at least their minions, have actually been on somewhat of a losing streak. Rath block, Planeswalker, Time Streams, Masques... even in Bloodlines they did not seem to be able to do anything more than gather some info on Urza and kill some of the bloodlines (while still letting the actual Heir to the Legacy escape) So they deserve a win to make us scared of them again, and that is what Nemesis provides. But it is clever about it. It doesn't introduce some new superweapon, it doesn't involve the Phyrexians defeating some new no-name plane or any cliche upping of the stakes like that. Instead it achieves its aim just by using themes and atmosphere.

I forgot to take a picture of the back cover, but here's the art for it, featuring Belbe and Ertai being kinky. The person whose Instagram I stole this from is actually apparently selling this piece of art, so head over there if you're interested! 
This book is all about losing hope, with the heroes constantly failing in their quests. We are told there will be a battle for the post of Evincar, but then Crovax pretty much immediately learns to control Greven's spine while Ertai never stands a chance. The rebellion seems to have more success, but they start slowly failing once they infiltrate the Stronghold. In the end it gets so bad you are left cheering for Volrath of all people. Sure, he's a sadistic lunatic, but at least he's not a nihilistic Evil Ernie like Crovax has become. Really, this whole book builds up to Ertai realizing Crovax's rise is inevitable and then helping out in the battle against Volrath just to get in the new Evincar's good graces. It's Magic's "Do it to Julia!"-moment. Not that Nemesis is quite as bleak as 1984, but it's probably as close as Magic is ever going to get. (The other contender for bleakest Magic story would be "Theft of Bayende" in Tapestries, I think)

Nemesis isn't miserable from the start though. The opening with Ertai and Greven is actually pretty funny. Especially that fact that it is Greven who finally recognizes Ertai's talent, after a book of all the Weatherlight crew just being annoyed by the young wizard. It's a bit grim if you think about it, but it works. Yet after that the joy slowly starts seeping out of the book. Heroic bravado comes to nothing, Ertai becomes resigned in his fate, and Crovax just keeps on rising. All this is thematically linked to Belbe's tampering with the flowstone forge. She keeps lowering the output, but the thing keeps automatically resetting itself to compensate. Similarly her and Ertai's attempts to take control of the Stronghold, and to turn Rath onto a better path are doomed to failure. Maybe if they had been willing to sacrifice themselves to smash the machine completely (metaphorical or actual) they could have stopped the Rathi overlay from happening, but the chances of that seem slim, and their sense of self preservation makes it impossible.


Some of this might seem like criticism of the book, like it is just a lot of huff working towards a foregone conclusion, but I actually really, really like this novel. It is dark, and it is bleak, but that is exactly what it needs to be. It sets out to make the situation in Rath seem as harsh as possible, and it succeeds in doing that with flying colors.

If there is a downside to this novel, it is that it sacrifices Crovax's character to achieve its darkness. I really liked him during Rath block... Well, maybe "liked" is the wrong word... he was a possessive, entitled asshole a lot of the time, but a possessive entitled asshole trying to do good, with at the very least the potential to be a hero. That was a very interesting dynamic, resulting in a conflicted and therefore fun to read about character. Here he starts out insane, and then literally has Phyrexians poke around in his brain until he is no longer recognizable as the character he was before. Ultimately I think it is for the best, because neither Greven nor Ertai would work in the role of unstoppable horror, and using an entirely new character would weaken the story, but it is still a shame we never got to see more of the original Crovax.

Well...
But that one downside does nothing to detract from Nemesis as a whole. It is one of my all time favorite Magic novels, and certainly the best part of the Weatherlight Saga after The Brothers' War. Heck, even though so much of it plays off the events of Rath and Storm, or sets up Invasion block, I would probably still recommend it to people who aren't planning on reading the whole saga. It is great and will no doubt wet your appetite for more Magic stories.

TRIVIA
  • Bizarrely, Lin Sivvi is called Liin Sivi here. This is the first of a bunch of weird naming errors, like Karona/Karoma and Yzolda/Lyzolda. This is also one of the first hints we have that the storyline and the cardgame are moving away from each other, as clearly the various teams at Wizards aren't communicating as closely as they used to before. This trend will continue for a few years and reaches it's pinnacle with Onslaught block. But we'll get to that eventually.
  • Liin Sivi means "Striking Viper" in Rathi. So presumably Lin Sivvi means "Strikng Vipper".
  • Crovax is turned into a Phyrexian by the Inner Circle member Abcal-Dro. You'd think his inclusion here means we'll see him again in Invasion, but like Croag he just disappears from the story.
  • Abcal-Dro says that the Phyrexians set up the contest to become Evincar because of their "survival of the fittest"-philosophy, but I wonder if that is all. Perhaps there is some politicking going on between Inner Circle members? Or maybe they just like inflicting pain. They did turn Avila's lover into her assassin for no adequately explained reason after all.
  • Planeswalkers are said to happen "by accident of breeding". That's not really true as far as we know, but it could be very easily explained as the Phyrexians just not understanding how planeswalkers actually come about.
  • While he is being transformed Crovax has visions of Selenia, which the priests working on him use to convince him to agree to having his conscience removed. But why would have have to agree, I wonder? And why didn't the Phyrexians do this to other minons, like Belbe, if they could? Could it be that this was just a ploy to get Crovax to think he no longer has a conscience, so he would commit all those atrocities out of his own free will?
We'll check how Crovax's personality change here matches with his depiction in Planeshift and Apocalypse when we get to those novels.
  • Crovax is told by the Phyrexians that "generations of leadership" where bred into him. This seems to imply that his family was part of the Bloodlines project.
  • Eladamri meets the Oracle en-Vec at a place in the Skyshroud Forest called the Eye of Korai, a burial mound named after the elvish chieftain who first used it as such.
  • It is said that the Oracle en-Vec dwells on other planes, and that the smoky pavilion in which she appears is actually part of her, which reminds me of how Manatarqua appeared as a pavilion in Planeswalker. There were no hints that the Oracle was a planeswalker during Rath block, but if she was, who could she be? Well, considering she's an old seer steering the heroes of the Weatherlight Saga along... it can really only be Urza, can it? We have no definite proof of that though. For all we know those stories are just part of a smoke and mirrors trick she does to make herself appear more important.
  • Whatever she is, the Oracle gives a strange prophecy; "No attack on the Stronghold will succeed. It will fall to the quietest of all, no man, no elf. You must go there in chains, O Eladamri. Go in chains, go in chains. The Dead One will open a door for you, and you must go." That last bit is obviously about Belbe opening the portal to Dominaria for Eladamri, but who is the "quietest of all"?
  • Eladamri is the son of Kelimenar. No idea if that is also an anagram of someone's mom.
  • Despite what the art of Topple shows, Volrath was turned back into Vuel before his execution, with all his implants removed as far as possible. His tongue was also cut out. But his fate of literally falling apart is probably far too gruesome to show on a card. He also dies under the Dominarian sky, due to the beginnings of the Rathi overlay.
  • One final thing I'd like to say, though it doesn't really have anything to do with the novels, is that continuing the Rebel/Mercenary theme from Mercadian Masques into Nemesis doesn't really work. The Rebels fit, with Eladamri's uprising and all. But the Mercenaries? Most of the ones we see in the set are actually just Phyrexians, who certainly don't fight for money! It's one of the weirdest and most un-fitting creature types the Phyrexians have ever gotten. At least all of them have been errata'd into Horrors or Zombies by now, which is a little better. (I remain convinced they actually should just have Phyrexian as a creature type though)
CONTINUITY
  • There is a quick reference to the giant snakes living in Skyshroud. These were mentioned in the Art of Rath book, where it is said the war between the elves and the Rootwater merfolk started when the elves started killing the snakes, which were the merfolk's main source of food.
  • There is also a quick reference to Davvol, from Bloodlines and to an evincar named Burgess. We never hear of Burgess anywhere else, and the only thing that's said about him here is that he had a "mechanistic fetishism"
  • We are given a very vague history for Greven il-Vec here. Apparently he was en-Vec once, so not born a servant of the Stronghold. He was the leader of "a great warrior nation" until "treachery and jealously cost him his position, his clan and his life", after which he fell into Volrath's hands.
  • We are once again told that the Crovax's entire family was tied to Selenia, and that that's why he was cursed when he killed her. So once again, Planar Chaos Mirri taking over the curse because she killed Selenia doesn't work. Though, of course, that's an alternate timeline, so who knows what else is different there?
  • Previously we were told Volrath had a personal planar portals in his room. This now appears to be missing, as it is a huge plot point that the portal Belbe has with her is the only one that works. I guess Volrath disabled it before assuming the guise of Takara?
  • We get some more information about how the Overlay is supposed to work, though it is so steeped in technobabble (magibabble?) that I don't know how much you'll get out of it. Apparently Rath and Dominaria are "coming into the same planar coordinates", at which point they will merge if Rath is big enough. Something about the creation of flowstone gives Rath more mass and thus a slower vibrational attunement. Look, I dunno, I'm not a scientist. All it suggests to me is that the Flash could cause a planar overlay if he runs fast enough on his cosmic treadmill.
TIMELINE
Well... pretty simple this one. Like Masques it happens directly after Rath and Storm and directly before Invasion, so somewhere in 4205. In fact, at the end it is said that the conjuncture with Dominaria will happen within days!

There are two other little timeline-things to note though:
  • Eladamri started his rebellion 20 years ago. I don't know if that is relevant, but I'll make a note of it. Maybe it will matter for that placement of an obscure story in an anthology one day.
  • Finally, Volrath claims he's been evincar longer than Crovax has been alive. This is just impossible. First off all, according to the character listings, Crovax is 6 years older that Volrath. As we discussed in the Rath block continuity overview though, those ages can't be trusted, but even then Volrath's claim here is still impossible. Vuel became Volrath is the 4196. So Crovax would have to be 9 for Volrath to be correct, which he clearly isn't. Let's just say it was hyperbolic boasting on the part of Volrath.

3 comments:

  1. I really hated this book. It was better paced and plotted than a lot of the books from the era (strictly from a writing quality standpoint it's the only book of the block that isn't a complete dumpster fire), but it completely kicks over the apple cart on the plot we've been following so far.

    Excited to see Volrath's and Gerrard's battle come to a head after the horrors he'd inflicted on Gerrard and his crewmates? F*** you.

    Like Crovax as a tormented, emo kid anti-hero and excited to see what happens with his vampirism? F*** you, he's a generic evil overlord now. (It also screws up Crovax's plot arc as it sort of implies his curse was a result of Phyrexia, which makes no sense.)

    Like Ertai's character? F*** you a million times for existing.

    It completely dismantled a lot of what the Weatherlight Saga, for all of its flaws, was doing and didn't actually replace it with anything interesting, IMHO.

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    Replies
    1. As much as I like Nemesis, I can't really argue with you. Those are all very valid criticisms. I just don't really hold Nemesis responsible for them, I see them more as problems with the Weatherlight Saga as a whole.

      In the context of just this novel, Volrath's demise works. Ertai turning from a borderline comedy character into a tragic figure works. Crovax symbolizing the destruction and degradation of Phyrexia, works.

      But yes, looking at the Saga as a whole it is really weird that Volrath is not ultimately defeated by Gerrard (or Sisay, Starke, Takara or even Karn), and Ertai's character development is really hard to imagine in the original swashbuckling adventure set up of the Saga.

      I will certainly come back to this when I do my wrap-up article for the Saga after Apocalypse has been reviewed.

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  2. Great read as always, you brought up a few points that I hadn't previously considered. Keep up the good work!
    -S

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